Thursday, 11 October 2012

Farewell to Lionel Bowen

Invisible MP the very model of a loyal deputy

Date  Don Woolford
Lionel Bowen Born December 28, 1922; Died April 1, 2012

Man of character ... Lionel Brown with then Prime Minister Bob Hawke in Newcastle, 1989. Man of character ... Lionel Brown with then Prime Minister Bob Hawke in Newcastle, 1989.
Lionel Bowen was the most invisible of Australia's major politicians.

He was a senior minister in the Whitlam and Hawke governments. He went close to becoming Labor leader and was the very model of a loyal deputy leader.

Yet the man was so personally modest and self-effacing he was scarcely known outside politics and the Randwick racecourse.

Lionel Bowen served as attorney-general and deputy prime minister. Lionel Bowen served as attorney-general and deputy prime minister. Photo: Robert Pearce Within politics, however, he was highly respected for his loyalty, shrewdness, longevity and humour.
Lionel Frost Bowen, who died yesterday aged 89, was born in the inner Sydney suburb of Ultimo on December 28, 1922. It was a difficult upbringing. His father left when he was 10 and his mother also had to look after her invalid brother and elderly mother while working as a cleaner.

They lived in rented houses in Redfern and Kensington, the latter only a walk from Randwick racecourse. Later he bought the Kensington house and, with his wife Claire, lived in it throughout his career. It was extended as their family grew to five sons and three daughters but remained so modest a Commonwealth driver couldn't believe the deputy PM lived there.

Bowen left school at 14 but later matriculated at night school and completed a law degree at Sydney University. While a solicitor, he had several terms as mayor of Randwick and in 1962 entered the NSW Parliament. Seven years later he enter federal politics as the member for Kingsford Smith, which remained his seat until he retired in 1990.

He was a member of the powerful NSW Right but was never a big factional player. On some issues, particularly protection, he was closer to the left, yet on social issues he was conservative. Some regarded him as essentially a loner. However, when Labor came to power in 1972 under Gough Whitlam, he had the numbers and respect to be elected by caucus to the ministry.

Whitlam was not an early admirer, judging from Bowen's description of his meeting with the new prime minister and his deputy Lance Barnard over the portfolio he would be given.
Whitlam: ''Well, Bowen, you made it.''
Bowen: ''Not bloody thanks to you.''
Whitlam: ''What do you want?''
Bowen: ''Housing.''
Whitlam: ''You can't have housing. You can have Papua New Guinea.''
Bowen: ''I don't want Papua New Guinea.''
Whitlam: ''Well, there's nothing else.''
Barnard: ''Well, you can have the post office.''
Bowen: ''Well, give us the bloody post office.''

Whitlam would change his view, however, and Bowen went on to become special minister of state and manufacturing industry minister. But one of his finest moments came by accident when he stood in for the ill education minister, Kim Beazley senior, to manage the passage of legislation providing funding for non-government schools.

Bowen took over as the opposition moved amendments in the Senate that would have destroyed the bill.
He went on the attack, threatening an election and bluffing the Country Party into crossing the floor.
Whitlam told him, ''Comrade, this is terrific, perhaps you can be my successor.''

He tried twice. After the 1975 slaughter, he ran against Whitlam to stake his claim and lost heavily. After Whitlam was again beaten in 1977, he and Bill Hayden contested the leadership. Hayden won 36-28. Bowen was elected deputy. He'd have liked to have been leader, been PM. But he was philosophical about it. ''That's the way the game turns out,'' he once said. ''I would have liked the top job but the numbers weren't there.''

While Bowen didn't think highly of Hayden, he said nothing publicly or privately against his leader as Bob Hawke started his push for the top job. Nor was he impressed by the flashiness of Labor's new star, saying, ''If we want a film star as leader, why don't we go all the way and import Jane Fonda?''

Finally, however, he accepted that Labor's prospects were better under Hawke and it was he who, with Hawke and John Button, had the final emotional meeting with Hayden in which a succession deal was hammered out. Bowen was a loser from this as he coveted foreign affairs and as deputy could normally have claimed it. But getting the portfolio was part of Hayden's price for going quietly, and Bowen finally conceded.

When Hawke won government Bowen remained deputy, first taking trade and then becoming attorney-general. At that stage he was planning to retire at the end of 1987, to be replaced in Kingsford Smith by Bob Carr. However NSW premier Barrie Unsworth wanted Carr in his team for another term. Hawke also wanted Bowen to stay as a buffer against the thrusting Paul Keating. So Bowen stayed for another term.

He finally retired in 1990 and was replaced by Keating replaced as deputy. His specific achievements over such a long period may have been relatively thin. But he provided the glue of decency, stability and good humour in a cauldron of egos and ambitions.

Hawke said he was the ideal deputy, whose loyalty was absolute. ''An affable, active, shrewd man, with a delightful, self-effacing humour and an uncanny capacity for accurately judging character,'' Hawke wrote in his memoir. Hawke's only public criticism was Bowen's record of tipping race winners. Hawke, who was less than modest about his own ability to judge horses, may have been unfair. Bowen did okay.

Fellow minister Michael Duffy said of his great mate, ''If all politicians, particularly ministers, had such a lack of pretension and conducted themselves as well as Lionel, politicians would be thought a lot more of in the community.'' AAP
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